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Tara Lipinski, Johnny Weir preview Grand Prix Final men’s, pairs competitions

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There was some debate about the Grand Prix Final men’s competition two weeks ago, but now there is a clear favorite.

Japan’s Yuzuru Hanyu is expected to become the first man to win three straight titles at the Grand Prix Final, the most prestigious annual figure skating competition outside of the World Championships (in Boston next spring).

The Barcelona event, which features the top six (or seven) skaters per discipline from this fall, takes place this weekend.

Icenetwork.com will provide live coverage of all programs for subscribers. NBC will air coverage Dec. 20 from 4-6 p.m. ET.

Here’s the schedule:

Thursday
Pairs short program — 2:30 p.m. ET
Men’s short program — 3:55 p.m. ET

Friday
Short dance — 1:05 p.m. ET
Pairs free skate — 2:20 p.m. ET
Women’s short program — 3:55 p.m. ET

Saturday
Free dance — 11:25 p.m. ET
Women’s free skate — 1:45 p.m. ET
Men’s free skate — 3 p.m. ET

Here are men’s and pairs previews with thoughts from NBC Olympics analysts Tara Lipinski and Johnny Weir:

Men’s Field (Best Grand Prix qualifying total score)
Yuzuru Hanyu
(322.40 WR) — 2014 Olympic, World champ, 2013-14 GPF champ
Javier Fernandez (271.43) — 2015 World champ
Patrick Chan (271.14) — 2011-13 World champ, 2014 Olympic silver medalist
Jin Boyang (266.43) — 2015 World junior silver medalist
Shoma Uno (257.43) — 2015 World junior champ
Daisuke Murakami (252.25) — Grand Prix Final debut

Preview
Japan’s Hanyu is favored to become the first man to win three straight Grand Prix Finals, two weeks after he shattered the short program and free skate records under the decade-old scoring system at NHK Trophy in Japan.

The field includes the last three men to win World titles in Hanyu, Fernandez and Chan.

Spain’s Fernandez, the home-ice favorite who beat Hanyu at last season’s Worlds, was the only singles skater to win both of their Grand Prix series events this fall and could have been the favorite until Hanyu’s effort in Japan.

Chan returned after a one-year break from competition to win Skate Canada (over Hanyu) in October.

Jin and Uno, both born in 1997, are senior-level rookies this season and may be wildcards. Both are known for their strong quadruple jumps.

Lipinski’s Take
“Watching [Hanyu] skate in Japan, it’s hard to imagine what could beat that. But I think if there’s anyone that can beat that, it is Javi. If Yuzu skates the way that he did in Japan, and Javi skates clean, of course it’s going to go to Yuzu. But I feel like Yuzu can’t make that many missteps because Javi with three quads [in a free skate], he’s a threat. I would definitely say it’s Yuzuru’s to lose, but I don’t think it’s as wide of a gap as everyone thinks.”

Weir’s Take
“Riding the high off the performance at Grand Prix Japan, I don’t know how Yuzuru’s going to deal with that. I mean, it’s a lot of pressure he’s put on himself, to be better than himself. But even if he skated like that and made one mistake, he’d still have it all over the other men.”

“Patrick Chan is having somewhat of a slow comeback. He was great at Skate Canada and rough at Grand Prix France in the short program. Javi is great and wonderful, but he does consistently make mistakes. I think if you’re comparing those top three guys at the moment, Yuzu is the one to beat. And he is almost untouchable, if he can deliver like that [in Japan]. But he’s got Shoma Uno, who also is skating very well, gets big scores. But I don’t know if Shoma is quite ready to outscore Yuzuru.”

“You can definitely call Shoma Uno and Boyang Jin the rookies of the Grand Prix Final, it’s both of their first Grand Prix Finals, so it’s an obvious thing to say that. But in two [Grand Prix series] competitions they were both able to put out so many wonderful quads, quad Lutz being the most important. … If we’re considering that Yuzu can skate the same as he did at the Grand Prix of Japan, and everyone’s fighting for second, I wouldn’t mind predicting Shoma Uno as a possible silver medalist.”

MORE: Weir ranks Hanyu’s record skates with his all-time favorites

Pairs Field
Meagan Duhamel/Eric Radford
— Canada
Yuko Kavaguti/Alexander Smirnov — Russia
Ksenia Stolbova/Fedor Klimov — Russia
Alexa Scimeca/Chris Knierim — U.S.
Yu Xiaoyu/Jin Yang — China
Julianna Seguin/Charlie Bilodeau — Canada
Peng Cheng/Zhang Hao — China

Preview
The World champions Duhamel and Radford were the only pair to win both of their qualifying events, but both Russian pairs were within two points of the Canadians’ top score this fall.

Notably absent are Olympic champions Tatyana Volosozhar and Maksim Trankov and World silver medalists Sui Wenjing and Han Cong, done for the fall due to injuries.

Scimeca and Knierim are the first U.S. pair to make the Grand Prix Final since 2007.

Lipinski’s Take
“What’s exciting is we’re missing a few of the top teams, and that’s a great opportunity for these other skaters, especially now having a U.S. team in the mix, for U.S. pairs that is such a milestone. Are [Scimeca and Knierim] going to win this event? Probably not, but I think this is sort of the time for them to start wedging their way into the top pack of pairs skaters. Meagan and Eric, I love them, there is just something that just sets their skating apart from every other team. It’s always so hard to predict who’s going to come out on top, but I think that they have it.”

Weir’s Take
“I am in love with the programs of Ksenia Stolbova and Fedor Klimov from Russia. They haven’t been so consistent this year, but what they have is a style and a presence that’s very, not sultry, but very empowered and very powerful to the audience. If they can get their technical elements together, I definitely think they’re my favorite to take the title. But expect strong performances from Duhamel/Radford. And it’s very exciting that Scimeca and Knierim are in the Final as well. I don’t know how they’ll factor into the medals at the Grand Prix Final, but it’s certainly wonderful that American pairs is back, stepping in the right direction with this team.”

MORE: Ashley Wagner eyes history at Grand Prix Final after ‘disaster’ in Japan

MyKayla Skinner’s motivation for Tokyo: her Rio Olympic experience

MyKayla Skinner
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MyKayla Skinner remembers the little room at the SAP Center in San Jose. She remembers the wait, somewhere between 10 and 20 minutes.

After the 2016 U.S. Olympic Women’s Gymnastics Trials, the competitors (14 total performed) assembled while a selection committee convened in another space.

The committee finalized the five-woman Olympic team (plus three alternates), marched into the athletes’ room and delivered the verdict.

“They say the first four names, and then there’s that one spot left,” Skinner recalled. “I’m like, is it going to be me? You’re so tense just waiting there. All of us holding each other’s hands in the room. We’re all sitting there. It’s just, like, frozen dead silent. Then they say that fifth spot.”

Skinner doesn’t remember who was the fifth name. Just that it wasn’t her.

“I just broke down crying,” she said in a recent interview. “All that hard work I put in still wasn’t good enough. Even though it was. It’s just who they needed for the team.”

Skinner placed fourth in the all-around at those Olympic Trials, the highest finisher who was not named to the Olympic team. She was one of three alternates. If the Olympic team was chosen by all-around standings, a selection committee would not be necessary. Instead, gymnasts are puzzle pieces, chosen as who best fits the Olympic format: three gymnasts per apparatus in the team final and up to two per nation per individual final.

Skinner’s mind raced while she waited for the committee’s decision. She eventually settled on a gut feeling, that she would not make the team.

“I thought that it should be enough, but at the same I didn’t think that it would be,” said Lisa Spini, Skinner’s coach at Desert Lights Gymnastics in Chandler, Arizona. “I thought the team was already decided before the Olympic Trials.”

Spini said it was her toughest night as a gymnastics coach.

“Being an alternate is probably the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do in gymnastics,” said Skinner, who traveled to Brazil and, with fellow alternates Ashton Locklear and Ragan Smith, trained separately from the Olympic team. “The whole time I was in Rio, I probably cried every single night

“The Olympics should be something so special, but I feel like it was definitely miserable at times. It was really hard to enjoy being an alternate. With this comeback, that has pushed me so hard just because I was so close.”

You may have read about Skinner back in the spring, after the Tokyo Olympics were postponed to 2021.

It’s a devastating delay for a female gymnast, whose peak often lasts for one Olympic cycle (sometimes even shorter). Skinner is an exception, excelling for the better part of a decade on different levels.

She made her first world championships team in 2014. After Rio, she matriculated at the University of Utah, where she was twice an NCAA all-around runner-up and hit an NCAA record 161 straight routines without a fall. In 2019, she decided to come back to international competition — for an Olympic run — with one year left of NCAA gymnastics.

She is 23, the oldest of the 16-woman U.S. national team. She is trying to become the oldest woman to make a U.S. Olympic gymnastics team since 2004. And the first with NCAA experience to do so since Alicia Sacramone in 2008.

“The reason why a lot of college gymnasts couldn’t come back and do it is they’ve been so injured over the years,” Spini said. “Their body wouldn’t hold up. She’s been really lucky that way.”

Skinner could have easily followed the path of so many other stars who signaled the end of an elite career by going to college, where training and routines are less demanding.

She questioned herself often after the Tokyo postponement whether it was worth it to return to elite training. The Olympic team event roster size has been cut from five to four. Simone Biles is an overwhelming favorite to earn one spot. In the face of those odds, Skinner can’t shake a memory from Rio.

“I just go back to the moment of when I was sitting in the stands,” watching the Final Five earn gold, Skinner said. “I was so close to making the team. This has been my dream ever since I went to Desert Lights when I was 12.”

Skinner’s comeback is already a success. Last year, on three months of elite training, she placed eighth at the U.S. Championships. She was convinced to accept an invitation to the world championships selection camp, where six women would make the traveling team (one later named an alternate).

Like in 2016, Skinner placed fourth in the all-around competition before the roster was chosen.

Again, the gymnasts gathered for the announcement. This time, Skinner made the cut as the sixth woman named. Biles, the other 20-something at the camp and a friend, jumped in excitement.

The team traveled to Germany in late September. After training, one woman had to be designated the alternate. High performance team coordinator Tom Forster took Skinner aside one day on the way to lunch. She knew what was coming and broke down in tears, flashing back to 2016.

“Simone was like, hey, let’s go to the bathroom. She helped talk me through it and helped me calm down and definitely made me a feel a lot better,” said Skinner, who supported Biles and the U.S. team that competed in Stuttgart. She then wed Jonas Harmer in November and decided what must be done to make the Olympic team.

“We’re going to try to add in some big skills, which will put her difficulty level, probably, second only to Simone,” Spini said.

Skinner is documenting her last year-plus in elite gymnastics on a YouTube channel with 29,000 subscribers. She has been fortunate during the coronavirus pandemic to train at her gym if no more than 10 people were present. Many other gymnasts — and athletes across Olympic sports — spent weeks or months out of their facilities.

“I definitely don’t think I would have been able to have that much time off,” she said. “That’s really hard with gymnastics because you feel like, you take two days off, and it’s like you had a year off.”

One day this spring, Skinner’s mom called, in tears, fearing for her life with an illness that turned out to be the coronavirus. Both of her parents, in their 60s, had it and briefly lost their senses of taste. Her mom had breathing problems, but they recovered.

One night last month, Skinner had a dream about next year’s Olympic Trials. The Final Five all came back to compete, and Skinner was again named an alternate. She woke up. Skinner doesn’t know how she would handle that kind of disappointment in real life, again.

“So it’s kind of scary,” she said. Then Skinner thinks back to Rio, and that burning she felt while watching the Final Five win gold medals.

“This is what I’m supposed to do. This is what I’m meant to do is elite gymnastics,” said Skinner, who was born via life-threatening, early-labor C-section, needing to be revived by doctors. “I think it’s cool that I can have this opportunity to go and push myself one last time so I can reach that end goal.”

MORE: Gymnast Grace McCallum won a coin flip to become world champion

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Wilson Kipsang, former marathon world-record holder, banned 4 years

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Wilson Kipsang, a former marathon world-record holder and Kenyan Olympic bronze medalist, was banned four years for whereabouts failures — not being available for drug testing — and providing false evidence in his case.

Kipsang had been provisionally banned in January in the case handled by the Athletics Integrity Unit, track and field’s doping watchdog organization. Athletes must provide doping officials with locations to be available for out-of-competition testing. Three missed tests in a 12-month span can lead to a suspension.

Kipsang, 38, received a four-year ban backdated to Jan. 10, when the provisional suspension was announced. His results since April 12, 2019, the date of his third whereabouts failure in a 12-month span, have been annulled. He is eligible to appeal. The full decision is here.

Kipsang won major marathons in New York City, London, Berlin and Tokyo between 2012 and 2017.

He lowered the world record to 2:03:23 at the 2013 Berlin Marathon, a mark that stood for one year until countryman Dennis Kimetto took it to 2:02:57 in Berlin. Another Kenyan, Eliud Kipchoge, lowered it to 2:01:39 at the 2018 Berlin Marathon.

Kipsang, the 2012 Olympic bronze medalist, last won a top-level marathon in Tokyo in 2017. He was third at the 2018 Berlin Marathon and 12th at his last marathon in London in April 2019, a result now disqualified.

Other Kenyan distance-running stars have been banned in recent years.

Rita Jeptoo had Boston and Chicago Marathon titles stripped, and Jemima Sumgong was banned after winning the Rio Olympic marathon after both tested positive for EPO. Asbel Kiprop, a 2008 Olympic 1500m champion and a three-time world champ, was banned four years after testing positive for EPO in November 2017.

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